The Blogging Farmer
Alex Tiller’s Blog on Agriculture and Farming


The Rewards of Diversification


Although monoculture (the practice of raising a single cash crop on extensive acreage) is a common business model in agriculture, it's a very bad idea. The Irish found this out the hard way back in the 1840s and again thirty years later—and if you know anything about your history, you know the how and why of it.

On the other hand, diversification of crops not only protects a community from famine is one crop should fail, it could actually be quite profitable. In fact, in a recent paper published by University of Iowa economics professor David Swenson, expanding production on farms in the Upper Midwest (Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa) to include 28 different varieties of fruits and vegetables, it could turn locally-based agriculture into a (get this) three billion dollar a year industry—and have many other benefits as well.

The paper, which came out in 2010, is entitled "Selected Measures of the Economic Values of Increased Fruit and Vegetable Production and Consumption in the Upper Midwest." You can download and read the paper here.

In light of statements made by the prophets of doom that we are all heading into Malthusian catastrophe in which population is going to outstrip food supplies and we're all going to starve to death, a number of things struck me about Professor Swenson's work. First of all was his statement that under his model, produce for ten thousand people can be produced on under 100 acres of land. An area the size of one Iowa county (a little over 270,000 acres) could meet the needs of the entire population of the six-state region. But that's not the best part.

According to Swenson's research (remember, this guy is an economist), that produce would generate over $880 million in direct sales—and this figure would more than triple by the time it reached retail outlets. We're talking $3 billion a year, folks. But here's the best part: such a project would create more than 9600 new jobs in agriculture paying almost $27,000 a year.

By the way, this doesn't include the contributions that could be made by backyard gardeners and small family farms.

tomatoesWhat produce are we talking about? Apricots, raspberries, tomatoes, strawberries, pears, watermelon and cantaloupe for starters. As far as vegetables go, there's nutrient-rich greens including mustard greens, collards, kale and spinach; root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots; garlic and eggplant, squash, cucumbers and more.

Unfortunately, at the moment a lot of land in that region has been given over to only three crops: maize, potatoes and wheat. Michigan is turning out to be the exception, however, and is already emerging as a major force in this new type of diversified agriculture. This could be the start of a new lease on life for this economically devastated state (you may remember awhile back I posted some info on a proposal to turn Detroit into the world's biggest urban farm).

So...what will it take for the other five states in the region to follow Michigan's lead? With the influence in D.C. of big corporations like Monsanto and ADR and their endless quest to control the world's food supply, I would not expect any help from our bought-and-paid for federal government. However, at the state and community levels, there may be some real hope—perhaps starting with some property tax reforms and incentives.

Time to start organizing.
Posted on June 25, 2010


Pestilence Points Up The Dangers of Monoculture

Helicoverpa zea dining out: the moths are coming home to roost. (Photo: José Roberta Peruca)

Responding to the above post, in which I pointed out the dangers of monoculture—that is, giving land over to a single cash crop—and how diversifying crops may very well turn out to be our salvation, one of my readers pointed out that "most of us are just pretty much fed with corn [maize]... prepared in millions of different ways to make us think we're eating different stuff." And that's pretty much true—next time you go to the grocery store, read the labels and find out how often a product contains "high fructose corn syrup," possibly one of the main culprits in America's obesity epidemic (though of course, the big corporate ag conglomerates deny it).

Well...the chickens—or more accurately, the moths—are coming home to roost in the Deep South, as if to prove my point. Whether it's because of global climate change or increased resistance to pesticides, or some other factor, the corn earworms are showing up earlier and earlier.

mothThis insect, known to entymologists as helicoverpa zea, is actually the larva of this species of moth, and is also known as the cotton bollworm or the tomato fruitworm, depending on what it's feasting on at any given moment. This little bug is a nasty one; not only will it eat up a large range of crops, it will even eat its brothers and sisters.

The corn earworm has been a problem in the South, particularly the Mississippi Delta region, practically since Europeans showed up and started planting crops almost 300 years ago. Last year (2009) was one of the heaviest infestations of earworms on record—but farmers in the Delta managed to dodge that bullet, as the bug's season was over and done with before the corn started silking. However, Ryan Jackson, an entymologist with the regional office of the USDA, warned that farmers "can’t necessarily count on that happening again in 2010." And of course, before this little demon starts in on the maize, it's already been doing some heavy snacking on cotton and soybeans.

Pesticides have long been the first line of defense in the war on the corn earworm, but like so many pestilential creatures, they've adapted; these pesticides have been having less and less of an effect, and besides, they're expensive, difficult to apply—and none too good for the consumer.

bacillusThere are some more environmentally friendly alternatives in the form of natural predators that can be used. One of these is the insidious flower bug; its favorite food is the eggs of the moth. Other "natural" solutions include a bacteria known as bacillus thuringiensis, which lives in soil and produces a toxin that is fatal to insect pests. Unfortunately, because such pests can breed several generations over the course of a single season, the old evolutionary mechanism kicks in and they adapt. There are also some types of roundworms, or nematodes, that live in damp soil and have been used successfully—but these can cause problems of their own.

Naturally, our friends at Monsanto and Dow have offered a solution, which they call Genuity VT Triple PRO—a type of genetically engineered seed that "provides multiple modes of action against above-ground pests" and has been shown to increase harvests.

But given what we know about the history of Monsanto, Dow and the others as well as their recent behavior, we should ask: "at what cost?"

Of course, if hurricanes this year blow BP's oil inland and spread it over cropland in the region, it could all be a moot point (but that's a whole other topic).

Posted on July 16, 2010


tillerHello, and thanks for checking out my blog.  My name is Alex Tiller and I grew up in rural Ohio (Clark County) where my family still owns farmland (corn and beans). I am a member of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers and am also an agribusiness author/blogger. I write about commercial farming, family farms, organic food production, sustainable agriculture, the local food movement, alternative renewable energy, hydroponics, agribusiness, farm entrepreneurship, and farm economics and farm policy. I visit lots of farms in different areas of the country (sometimes the world) that grow all kinds of different crops and share what I learn with you through this blog.

You can contact me via email by clicking here: Email Alex (

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